January 22, 2003

· Sociology

Speaking purely as a sociologist, I have to say that I am all in favor of human cloning. I mean, think of the research opportunities. It goes way beyond the fantasies of even Dr Marvin Monroe, from the Simpsons. You’ll remember that, when Lisa came into a lot of money and wanted to give it away to a worthy cause, Dr Monroe’s pitch was for a research project. He wanted to buy a baby and raise it in isolation from other human beings for 18 years. “My hypothesis is that the child will grow up to harbor deep feelings of anger and resentment towards me,” he argued. But Dr Marvin is a psychologist, and so gets to do vaguely unethical experiments all the time. We sociologists, on the other hand, are not allowed to do things like, say, isolate a large country for ten years and screw around with its institutions to see what happens. Actually, now that I mention it, that’s what the economists got to do to Russia after 1991, except of course the concept of ‘institution’ didn’t come up until it was a bit too late.

But I digress. The reason that cloning would be such a terrific research opportunity is that sociologists would finally get to show how they’ve been right all along. Or, to put it in more technical terms, the arguments of the genetic determinists would most likely be shown up as horrendously wrong. (Let me recommend in passing a short, accessible, very smart book on this topic.)

In the absence of actual human clones, certain research programs notwithstanding, we at least have some new, hard data about cloned cats. Rainbow the cat has a clone, Cc. (Aren’t they cute?) They have different markings and different behaviors. They are—- surprise!—- really quite different cats, and this in circumstances where their basic environments are pretty similar too, as things go. (They both live in Texas, for example.)

These divergences in behavior are probably bad news for the superbly named Genetic Savings and Clone Inc., the company that funded the research. They want to run a business creating and selling clones of people’s favorite children, er, I mean pets. It doesn’t look like a wholly viable business plan on the basis of Cc.

So, of course I don’t condone Dr Marvin’s research methods. In any event I’d be prohibited from implementing them by my IRB. But his hypothesis, though somewhat crude, is more or less right. Environment matters more than you think. More importantly, the interaction between genome and environment matters in ways we really haven’t got much of a clue about.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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